MOOCs And The Future Of Russian History In America

Joshua Sanborn | Russian History Blog | January 7, 2013

At the most recent Slavic Studies convention, I was talking with an old friend about the advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). We teach similar courses at different institutions – he teaches at a university with global name recognition, while I teach at a small liberal arts college.  Even the “college” part of the name can be a problem in those many locations where the liberal arts college model is not well known. More than a few archivists and scholars have crinkled their eyebrows when examining my credentials, trying to make sense of what “Лафает Колледж” could possibly mean. My friend described to me some of the issues faculty members at his university were grappling with – when, how, and to what extent they should join the MOOC bandwagon.  It is already clear that at big-time universities folks are beginning to be concerned that a failure to develop MOOCs could bring real harm to their profile and reputation at home and abroad.

Those universities are right to give long, hard thought to the potential that MOOCs have for promoting learning, not only for the largely well-to-do students of selective colleges and universities in the U. S., but for also for students with less means around the world. Still, for folks in my position and for the students who benefit from my work, it’s hard to see the growth of MOOCs as anything but a disaster. In the first place, I have difficulty imagining a real market competition between online courses. No matter how many “likes” or five star online reviews a course on Imperial Russia from a professor at Ruritania College might get, that professor (or college) will have a hard time competing with MIT or Stanford. It also, I think, carries special risk for American scholars of Russia. MOOCs draw strength from their economies of scale. Russian historians, on the other hand, do best when they focus on the quality of their courses rather than the quantity of the students who take them. I am an optimistic promoter of Russian Studies, but courses on the American Civil War will continue to outdraw courses on the Russian Civil War. There is sure to be space on these platforms for a variety of courses, but the eventual economic logic of MOOCs relies on the “massive” part as much as the “open” part. Enrollments will be carefully watched...